Jon Beutjer knows he has to master the Illini's prostyle offense in order to win the quarterback job this fall. So the junior signal-caller, who sat out last season after transferring from Iowa, spends two hours after dinner each night in the film room, scrutinizing game tape with the same ardor most college guys have for Girls Gone Wild videos. His bedtime reading is the Illini's Yellow Pages-sized playbook. "I fall over that playbook when I get out of bed," Beutjer says, laughing. "I'm constantly visualizing situations and thinking about plays."
Beutjer is battling last year's backup quarterback, Dustin Ward, to succeed Kurt Kittner, the program's alltime winningest quarterback, who last season threw for 3,256 yards and 27 touchdowns, leading Illinois to its first outright Big Ten championship since 1983. "In the ideal situation, we'd have named the starter after spring ball," says sixth-year Illinois coach Ron Turner, whose final decision may not come until the week of Illinois's Aug. 31 opener against Missouri. "That didn't happen, but in a positive way. Both guys came on."
Beutjer has more game experience than Ward—at Iowa he completed 61.6% of his passes for 841 yards and six touchdowns in 2000—but Ward, a fourth-year junior who has thrown only 70 passes as a collegian, better understands the Illinois offense. "With the set of receivers we have, the quarterback needs to do his job and make the right reads," says Turner, referring to junior wideout Brandon Lloyd and senior Walter Young, who combined for 1,952 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. "He doesn't have to play on fire, he just has to play efficiently."
Since the bulk of the roster is status quo (14 starters return), the Illini's title defense will depend primarily on how well Beutjer or Ward replaces Kittner. "We both want to be the starter, and we both are preparing the right way," Ward says. "We are going to have a quality QB at Illinois." The only question is, Who?